Talented animation maverick Don Bluth’s newest outing, “Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina,” fails to effectively mine the poetic images and characters of the Danish children’s classic and instead translates the yarn into a perky contemporary bestiary filled with frenetic, hypercomical creatures woefully lacking in charm or warmth. The chances of “Beast” or “Mermaid”-type dollars for this unaffecting family fare would seem as slight as the film heroine’s tiny waist. Respectable theatrical receipts and a solid video life would seem a “happily ever after” for this modestly entertaining family outing from the maker of the 1986 animated B.O. triumph “An American Tail.”
Pic employs the vocal talents of a colorful acting crew (including Charo, John Hurt, Carol Channing, Gilbert Gottfried and animation vet June Foray), the music of Barry Manilow and teams of animators and artists from Ireland to Hungary. But co-producer/director/screenwriter Bluth unfortunately fails to pull these elements together into a dramatic, cohesive movie.
Thumbelina’s quest to find the fairy prince of her dreams, and her prince’s battle to save her from the creatures of the woods, stop and start, never pausing long enough to create a consistent mood. There’s also a vacuum where there should be a memorable nemesis.
The film opens promisingly with Thumbelina’s brief encounter with Prince Cornelius, and if both are a tad too ’90s in appearance, their first evening together conveys the magic of romance and offers a spectacular nocturnal flight through the countryside, courtesy of an obliging bumblebee. Manilow’s music lends a strong emotional lift to the proceedings, but the songs that follow aren’t nearly as memorable or as affecting.
As Thumbelina stumbles through a series of threatening encounters with the forest’s denizens, her character development is imperceptible. Likewise Prince Cornelius, who knows in the film’s first moments that Thumbelina is his true love.
Perhaps preschoolers will find “Thumbelina” an entertaining alternative to “Barney” and others of his ilk, but they’ll have a hard time finding older siblings who’ll relish the chance to share their adventure. Parents, hoping to share time in the imaginary world of childhood, will instead find their patience strained.
It may sound silly to question the motivation of a lovesick frog or the character arc of a randy beetle, but the best animated fantasy films are chock-full of grumpy dwarves, passionate beasts, loyal crickets and the like, and their creators have wedded solid storytelling skills to their gift for making dreamlike images.
Other than an occasional breathtaking splash of animation, “Thumbelina” adds little to the form’s history. In its best moments, it gives a glimpse of the delicate poetry that underlines Andersen’s vision of a beautiful spirit outcast in a frightening, oversized world. But those moments are as fragile as a fairy’s wing and are quickly overwhelmed by characters like Gottfried’s bleating, abrasive Mr. Beetle and Charo’s cuchi-cuchi reptile stage mother, Ma Toad. The result is more grim than Grimm.